My mom’s parents moved to Florida from Tennessee when I was in high school. They moved to a little town about 20 minutes away from where we lived. When my grandparents lived in Tennessee, we didn’t see them often at all. Not even once a year. Having them just 20 minutes down the road changed things. It gave me the opportunity to really get to know my grandparents for the first time, something I’ll always be grateful for.
Like most households of that generation, my grandmother was the cook in the family. I have fond memories of holiday dinners at her house, dinners that always seemed to include a country ham, tender green beans cooked with a ham hock, and macaroni and cheese. I’m sure she had more desserts in her repertoire, but I only really remember two — chess pie and banana pudding. Those were the ones that I looked forward to at every family dinner where my grandmother had something to do with the cooking.
It’s been a long time since I was in high school – 20 years, actually, says the high school reunion flyer I just got in the mail – and time has marched right along. Over time, my grandmother stopped cooking as regularly. My grandparents started coming to my parents’ house for dinner more instead of the other way around. My grandfather died back in early 2004, just a couple of months after my daughter was born. And, other than making simple meals for herself, she stopped making the banana pudding and chess pie that I loved, along with most everything else. In January of this year, at the age of 86, my grandmother was diagnosed with an aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She made it through three cycles of chemotherapy followed by a course of radiation therapy. She had to give up her independence and move in with my parents shortly after chemotherapy began. She finished up her last treatment on May 28.
But she got some good news just a couple of weeks ago. Her latest scans look great and she’s in a complete remission. The bad news? She still doesn’t make banana pudding anymore.
So, for the July 4th holiday, we went to my parents’ house for dinner and, because it seemed like the perfect opportunity to celebrate family and tradition, I decided to bring the banana pudding. With my grandmother’s pudding in my mind as the ideal banana pudding – the pudding on a pedestal, you might say - I set out to do my best. I knew I needed to make a banana pudding chock full of vanilla wafers and banana pieces. Her version always had a meringue on top, but since I intended to make mine a day ahead and then transport it, I went with a crunchy topping of ground vanilla wafers flavored with cinnamon.
We had a lovely July 4th, and my grandmother is doing great. She’s still recovering, but she’s doing just fine. She told me she liked the pudding, and I did too. I liked it a lot, actually. But, you know what? It wasn’t her banana pudding, and I’m not sure I can ever make one that will be. And that’s probably okay, too.
Southern Banana Pudding
Yield: 12 servings.
Ingredients for Topping
1 1/2 cups vanilla wafers
3 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 big pinch of Kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Ingredients for Pudding
7 slightly underripe large bananas
1 1/2 cups sugar
8 large egg yolks
6 tablespoons cornstarch
6 cups half-and-half
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 box vanilla wafers
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place 3 unpeeled bananas on baking sheet and bake on oven rack in the upper-middle position until skins are completely black, about 20 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk 1/2 cup sugar, egg yolks, and cornstarch in medium bowl until smooth. Bring half-and-half, remaining 1 cup of sugar, and salt to simmer over medium heat in large saucepan. Whisk 1/2 cup simmering half-and-half mixture into saucepan. Slowly whisk tempered yolk mixture into saucepan. Cook, whisking constantly, until mixture is thick and large bubbles appear at the surface, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and butter.
Transfer pudding to food processor. Add warm peeled roasted bananas and 2 tablespoons lemon juice and process until smooth. [Note: If your processor doesn't hold 11 cups, puree half the pudding with the bananas and lemon juice, then transfer it to a bowl and whisk in the rest of the pudding.] Scrape into large plastic bowl and place plastic wrap directly on surface of pudding. Refrigerate until slightly cool, about 45 minutes.
Cut remaining bananas into 1/4 inch slices and toss in a bowl with the remaining 1 tablespoon lemon juice. To serve this in a large bowl (like a trifle bowl), spoon 1/4 of the pudding into the bowl and top with a layer of vanilla wafers and then a layer of bananas. Continue on with this pattern, ending with pudding. Place plastic wrap directly on surface of pudding and refrigerate until vanilla wafers have softened, at least 8 hours or up to 2 days. Sprinkle the crushed vanilla wafer topping over the pudding prior to serving.
Recipe adapted from a recipe for banana pudding in Cook's Country, August/September 2010 issue, and from this recipe on Epicurious.